St Martin's Church, Acrise Entrance

History of St Martin’s
Church, Acrise

St Martin’s Church, Acrise, dating back some 900 years, continues to retain the simplicity and atmosphere of its original early Norman construction. Comprised of a nave and chancel, topped by massive wooden tie beams and king posts, it lies quietly hidden from the road. Approached through an avenue of trees, rooks seemingly act as sentinels, protecting the small church and ancient yard they have chosen as their home.

Acrise owes its name to the abundance of oaks that grew on the high ground in the area – oak rise. There are still many old oak trees to be found within the parish, which even today has only a small population of around two hundred people. Listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as being held by Ansketel of Rots from Bishop Odo of Bayeaux, it comprised one manor, woodland and a church.

St Martin’s was probably built by Ansketel shortly after the Domesday entry and replaced an earlier Saxon church. Whilst much of the work is now hidden by later 14th century alterations, parts of original windows and priest’s door remain testimony to the early Norman origin.

Original windows outline on exterior

The church was dedicated to the popular St Martin who was born in Hungary in 316AD, serving as a Roman army officer before turning to Christianity. Outside the town gates of Amiens he famously gave half his military cloak to a beggar in whom he saw Christ. Subsequently, in a dream, he saw Christ wearing the garment. Baptised, Martin devoted himself to promoting rural monasticism throughout Western Europe.

Records show that there was a painted image of St Martin within the church. This would have been a reminder to the medieval parishioners that ‘Martinmas’ (11th November) was a key time of the year, being the day for hiring new servants and salting meat for the winter. Some say that you can still see traces of the painting to the side of the chancel arch.

Numerous very striking wall monuments dating back to Elizabeth I illustrate a strong association with the families that lived locally and at the adjacent manor house, Acrise Place. Notably, the Papillons resided there for some two hundred years from 1666 – the year of the great fire of London They were intimately connected with St Martin’s and would have sat in the unusual box shaped ‘Squires pew’, present to this day.

The musicians’ gallery was restored in 1824 and although no record exists of when it was originally constructed, tiny chairs (circa 1805), still in use, remain from when it accommodated the Sunday school. A magnificently carved and painted Royal Coat of Arms (circa 1690), from the reign of William and Mary, hangs in front of the gallery.

St Martin's Bell Tower

Substantially unaltered since the 14th century, St Martin’s has played its part in the history of the last millennium but never more so than in 1214. Then it would probably have been the first church in the land to ring out its bells to mark the end of the Pope’s six long years of Interdict. King John, camped nearby on Barham Downs with an army of soldiers, awaited a French invasion. England had been ex-communicated for John’s refusal to appoint the Pope’s choice as Archbishop of Canterbury, with the consequence that priests were unable to christen, marry nor bury their flock.

The French king, Phillip, saw his opportunity to enter into a crusade and invade these shores. John thwarted the plan by offering the crown of England, in exchange for the lifting of the Interdict, to the Pope’s Legate at Hoad’s Farm, a mile distant from St Martin’s. Church bells rang out across the whole country at the news and undoubtedly, St Martin’s would have been the first to ring a peel.

Entrance to St Martin's Church, Acrise

It is only possible to touch briefly on the history of St Martin’s, with its roots stretching back to the last time England was conquered. It stood its ground in 1944, playing its part when Acrise was home to British, American and Canadian troops preparing for the D Day landings. St Martin’s continues to stand, unbowed, a tribute to the craftsmen that fashioned it all those centuries ago.

So come and walk up the tree-lined avenue, listen as the rooks chatter a welcome and enter through the door as countless generations have done before. Pause, reflect and step back into history.

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